I walked into a professor’s office in November or December 2013 and told him that I was going to have three classes with him the following semester. His response stuck with me.
With a dash of his trademark humor and humility, he said:
“Why would you do that? I’m so sorry for you.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but Dr. William Steele was about a year into a project that’s going to come out September 1st in Canada.1 That project was Going the Distance, the official biography of W.P. Kinsella.
I’m excited about this book. One of my favorite books is The Alligator Report by W.P. Kinsella, so I’m totally down to read everything I can about his life. However, you probably know of Kinsella by a different work. The movie, Field of Dreams was adapted from Kinsella’s novel, Shoeless Joe. It’s also the birthplace of the haunting phrase, “If you build it, they will come.”
I got the chance to interview Dr. Steele about Going the Distance. I hope you enjoy his responses as much as I did.
- I know you’ve told me before, but would you mind retelling the story of how you ended up writing this book?
I suppose, technically, it began when I went to see Field of Dreams in the summer of 1989. But it wasn’t until I was putting together my proposal for my MA thesis that I decided to explore the father-son relationships in the film and Kinsella’s novel on which it was based, Shoeless Joe. Fast-forward a few years to when I was putting my doctoral dissertation proposal together, and I explored the use of baseball in establishing various types of identity in Kinsella’s novels. Five years after that I published an expanded version of that dissertation, A Member of the Local Nine: Baseball and Identity in the Novels of W.P. Kinsella, with McFarland in 2012. Sometime soon after, a Kinsella fan contacted me about getting a copy of my book. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he was friends with Kinsella, with whom he shared the book. Kinsella was known for his antagonistic attitude towards academics, particularly literary critics, so I was a bit concerned about his reaction. But he sent me a nice note thanking me for the examination of his work and telling me I didn’t jump to absurd conclusions like many academics tend to do. Not long after that, he emailed to ask if I’d be interested in writing his biography. Almost six years later, here we are.
- About how many hours do you think went into the book?
Oh, wow. I have no idea. It took about 5.5 years of pretty steady work. I changed jobs and moved out of state during the process, but I made four trips to Canada for research and several hours of phone calls with friends, family, and Kinsella himself. I wish I’d kept track of the man hours spent on this, as I had some friends and colleagues help with the research in Canada, but I couldn’t even begin to guess.
- What kind of audiences would get the most out of Going the Distance?
I think three types. The first are fans of Kinsella’s who want to know more about him and what went into his writing. Next are those who are, like I started out, academics who are interested in seeing the connections between his work and his life. Last, I think writers who want insight into his process will find it interesting to see how he developed over the course of his career.
- Of the stuff that you discovered about Kinsella, what surprised you the most?
I suppose the easy answer would be to say, “Read the book!” but a couple things jumped out at me. He was fiercely competitive, not just with others but with himself. He’d keep meticulous records of how much he’d written in a year and then match how he did the following year with previous years. He kept keeping track of how much he’d written each day up until the summer he died in 2016.
I was also amazed at his attitude about his writing. He recognized that not all his work was great. In fact, he admitted some of it wasn’t very good at all, but if people were going to pay him for stories, he’d keep cranking them out. The romantic idealist in me wanted to hear him talk about creating great art, but he was up front in saying he wanted to entertain people, but it was important for him to get paid for the work.
- Was there a moment in Kinsella’s life that convinced him he should become an author or was it something he seemed destined to do?
He wanted to be an author as a young kid, but a guidance counselor in high school discouraged him, saying writing was a hobby and not something for a career. Kinsella later told a group of students at his former high school that there is a special place in Hell for that counselor. He was angry he’d spent 20-plus years working jobs he hated instead of writing. One day he decided to start taking classes at the University of Victoria and soon sold the restaurant he owned to go to school full-time. Within a few years he was in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and published his first book at age 42.
- In your opinion, what are his top-three books? Why?
I’m partial to his baseball books, but his works fall into four categories: baseball stories, semi-autobiographical novels, what he called his “Indian stories” about life on a Cree reservation told from the voice of a young Cree man, and his “Brautigans,” whimsical, off-the-wall stories inspired by his favorite author, Richard Brautigan.2
- My favorite book is Shoeless Joe (1982), the basis for Field of Dreams. The optimism and magical realism had me hooked from the first time I saw the film and read the book. There is a lot in the book that doesn’t make the movie, and much of what was cut from Phil Robinson’s screenplay is what I like about the book. Of course, the “what if” aspect of the story—what if a man hears a voice telling him to build a baseball field on his farm—makes for one of the coolest openings ever.
- Dance Me Outside (1977) was his first book and set him on the path to becoming the writer he was. The stories address some of the harsh realities of living on a First Nations reservation, but the narrator, Silas Erminseskin, tells the stories in such a way that you can’t help but laugh at the absurdities he exposes. These stories remind me in some ways of Huck Finn telling stories. You laugh, but then you realize you are laughing at those things in which we often put our trust—religion, government, education, police, etc. Later on, Kinsella had to deal with accusations of cultural appropriation and racism, but these stories demonstrate his ability to view the world through someone else’s eyes and his willingness to challenge those institutions he sees more as the problem than the solution.
- The Winter Helen Dropped By (1995) is not one of his better-known books, but it’s the second in a trilogy, the last of which has never been published. This is the closest Kinsella came to writing autobiography. Many of the anecdotes the narrator, Jamie O’Day, recounts are taken directly from Kinsella’s life in rural Alberta during the first ten years of his life. It has moments of hilarity in it, but it also has aspects of the coming-of-age melancholy people have when they realize the innocence they had as kids is gone and they can pinpoint when it started leaving them.
- What was your writing process like?
It varied depending on the time of year. During the school year, I crammed writing into whatever free moments I had between class preps and grading. For a long stretch, I borrowed a page from Kinsella and committed myself to a set amount each day for two days and then take a day off to edit. He wrote more than I did, but I found two pages a day for two days and then a day to edit/type (I still write everything by hand on legal pads) allowed me to get 160 pages of new text during the four months of a semester. The most important thing I did was just stick with it. Sometimes it was a grind getting two pages down, but having a goal each day made it happen. Of course, I was also editing previous pages on those days, too, so something was getting done just about every day.
- Do you have any advice for aspiring biography writers?
The best advice I got was “write about someone who has already died, and then kill his family.” But I think the best advice I have looking back on this is to realize your research could go on forever. One interview will lead to 2-3 more. Digging through archives, you may find tens of thousands of pages of material as I did, but you don’t need it all. Knowing that any biography is going to be incomplete is a good realization to get early on. You could always interview one more person or search for one more letter from the person, but you need to focus on being as complete as you can to make the reader understand who the person was.
- If you had to give a one-sentence sales pitch for Going the Distance, what would you say?
My kids need to eat!
Perhaps a better sentence is this: “The first ever biography of W.P. Kinsella, utilizing his personal journals, private papers, and one-on-one interviews.” Much of what’s in this isn’t found anywhere else.
- What’s coming next for you?
I am returning to a project I’d started back when Kinsella emailed me in 2012. I am putting together a book about the role major league baseball played in our country during the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. There was a week of no baseball and then the World Series came back to the Bronx that fall, and I’m exploring everything that happened in between the attacks and the Series.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m pretty pumped to get Going the Distance when it comes out. Like I said earlier, it comes out September 1 in Canada, and April 21, 2019 in the United States, which will be 30 years to the day after Field of Dreams was released in theaters.
If you’re interested in checking out Going the Distance, you can visit the publisher’s website, or find it on Amazon. If you want to tweet nice things at Dr. Steele, you can find him @wsteele9 on Twitter.
If you liked this article, be sure to let me know. I really enjoyed this interview and am interested in doing more. So, you guys should let me know if you liked it.
Also, be sure to check out:
The Limits of Literary Theory
The Problem with Genre
Hemingway’s Six Words Aren’t a Short Story